Last week, Anthony de Jasay passed away. At 94, he left an impressive legacy. He was one of the most important thinkers in political philosophy, social choice and the liberal order. He did not achieve the fame of a Hayek, a Nozick, a Friedman or a Buchanan, but was no less important or original.
He named one of his books “Before resorting to politics”, which nicely sums up his project. We should think long and hard before rushing to political solutions. He questioned the rationale for government more thoroughly than anybody else. While thinkers like Buchanan and Nozick tried to prove that people in a state of nature would establish a minimal government (either by a social contract or a spontaneous right respecting process), Jasay tried to prove them wrong. The libertarian leap from ‘ordered anarchy’ to a minimal state would neither be possible nor desirable. Jasay did not, however, simply advocate going back to ordered anarchy. He was not an anarcho-capitalist in the simple sense. But he rejected the idea that existing governments were legitimate, because we would have established them in their absence in the state of nature. We would not. And he even argued that public goods could be provided sufficiently by the market. (I discuss his theories on contractarianism and public goods here, alas you have to be able to read Danish).
Jasay was no naïve romantic. On the contrary. He drew on a deep insight into game theory and social choice (while avoiding math). Neither was he a believer in natural rights. He did put forward, however, a positive theory of liberty. The presumption of liberty in his view is closely related to the presumption of innocence in law. It is impossible to prove your innocence, since more suspicions could always be added. Likewise, it would amount to an impossible requirement if people should prove their right to perform any given act.
He was also a strong critic of the idea of “social justice”, or, as he put it, attempts to make justice mean something else than justice (for instance the Rawlsian notion of justice as “fairness”). Justice is following rules and promises, one has agreed to.
Jasay’s life was just as extraordinary as his work. He fled communism in his native Hungary in 1948. After studying economics, he took up a position at Oxford University 1955. Seven years later he embarked on a career as an independent investment banker. Having made enough money, he retired from banking in 1979, and began thinking and writing as an independent scholar, based in Normandy, France.
His first book, “The State”, was discovered by chance by James M. Buchanan, who saw an add for it in a newspaper. Buchanan promoted his writings, even if – or rather because – he was such an important critic of the constitutional project, Buchanan himself was engaged in (more on Jasay and Buchanan in my Danish book “James M. Buchanan”).
In “The State”, Jasay asked the hypothetical question: If the state were a person, what would it do? He found it unrealistic that the state, having been given a monopoly of legitimate use of force, would accept to be confined to a minor role as a night watchman.
A list of Jasay’s writing can be found at his web page. You can find The State here as a free e-book. He wrote a monthly piece for econlib, commenting on a range of issues from philosophy, economics, politics and current affairs.